Tag Archives: teaching

Weltschmerz

http://www.jes-galery.de/images/Weltschmerz-web.jpg

I received an email from a friend a while ago saying:

“Whoops. A student cried in my lecture today because the world is so unfair and we can’t change it. We were only doing the media representation of crime but we started talking about politics and the effects of everything on everything else. She’d NEVER realised that media is biased. She hadn’t questioned stuff. Her whole understanding of the world just shattered in my lecture. She got so totally overwhelmed by how difficult it is to know what’s right and also how dangerous irresponsible media is that she literally sobbed out loud.”

My friend wasn’t sure how to feel about the effect her lecture had had on this student, and nor am I. The part of me that still believes in education as a liberating force thought, ‘that was a powerful, eye-opening lesson. That’s what education is for – to make people more aware of the world around them and then to hopefully give them the wherewithal to make wise choices.’ This was the leftover idealist in me speaking – the tiny bit of me that still hasn’t been smashed to splinters on the shipwreck that is our current education system.

But the thought of this student sobbing for her lost certainty is actually a very sad one. It’s been rubbing like a pebble in my welly ever since I received the email because I had a sore spot there anyway. Part of what had been bugging me for a while was the question: what has knowledge ever done for me? When I was young I read a lot. I read about the slave trade, the (then) nuclear threat, the world wars, Hiroshima, Vietnam… and I took it seriously, that knowledge. I absorbed and pondered it. I let it affect me emotionally. And if you take this stuff seriously it does affect you. It probably should affect you.

So what then are you supposed to do with the emotional detritus this kind of knowledge creates? How do you cope with the monumental sense of powerlessness you’re left with when you finally understand that most things are a bit insane? It seems there are three ways to deal with it. The first way is to go into politics or education or whatever is your particular interest and try to change things from within. The second way is to ‘drop out’ and try to change things from without by attempting to build a life outside the mainstream and engaging with protest movements. The third way,  (the way my friend took when she boycotted all forms of news because it made her sob to the point of meltdown), is to hide from it all and try to spend your life in your happy place (or just live your life perpetually off your face on drugs/alcohol).

I tried the second method for many years until I finally realised there really is no way to build a life truly outside the mainstream in the UK if you have no resources. I also realised that protests have very little effect unless they are gigantic and relentless and, again, you have resources. Nobody listens to the truly powerless. So I decided I’d join the education system and try to help things from within. Ten years later I, along with many wonderful colleagues, am battered, broken, disillusioned and exhausted. I have never developed the capacity to turn my mind away from things I think are wrong and just get on with life. I’ve never developed the capacity to shut my gob, either. And you can’t just live in your happy place when you have to go out into the wrong every day and earn a living. So that’s where I am now: stymied. I can’t change things, I can’t run away from things, and I don’t have it in me to ignore things.

So I UNDERSTAND my friend’s student’s response to the horrible realisation that the world is not as manageable as she first thought, and I hope she finds somewhere in her brain to file this stuff so she can walk the tightrope between unhappy knowledge and ignorant bliss much more confidently than I do.

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Learning to listen

miner and moustacheI haven’t been writing lately. I’ve been reading the Internet too much again and I’m not sure why, but for the last few months my brain has not been processing the data I’ve been inputting effectively enough to produce any writeable trains of thought. I think I may be suffering from Toffler’s ‘infoxication’, or information overload. Someone may need to invent a new idiom to cover this state of affairs because I bet I’m not the only one experiencing it. How about: Too many opinions spoil your convictions…?

Ok, that’s embarrassingly lame, but it’s a start.

Anyway, while I have been unable to settle on any firm opinion about anything, and have also been wondering what the hell I want to do with my last 30 odd years on the planet, I have been working relentlessly on my other blog. This blog involves me walking around Cornwall with a camera permanently glued to my hand and a notebook and pen in my back pocket, accosting innocent passers-by and forcing them to talk to me.  As I’ve relaxed into the process of approaching a stranger, explaining what I’m doing and then asking their permission to photograph them, I have become more and more addicted to the whole thing. Only a few people say no, and these people usually have a very good reason to want to remain private, although the occasional older Cornish person still has a fear of the Internet based on not quite understanding how it works. One man today explained carefully to his wife, that if he had his photo on the blog, it would be seen by millions of people all over the world. If only that were so.

A serious and elegant lady I met in Falmouth this week

But what is so compelling about the whole thing is learning firsthand how almost everyone has something interesting to say if I can relax them enough to talk to me, and how moving even the most seemingly ordinary lives actually are. Although I tend to approach people who stand out to me in some way, often those who are more discreet in their appearance are just as interesting as the more noticeable ones, and on more than one occasion they have been much more interesting. I have always been someone who has faith in people, but doing this project confirms every single day that human beings are fascinating, funny and innovative. I met a man who is building a replica in his garden of one of the first planes to ever fly successfully, a homeless man who writes jokes on William Hill betting slips and keeps them in his rucksack, a woman whose husband accidentally asphyxiated himself on the back of a door and a man whose job it was to clean up drowned animals from Cornwall’s beaches. To name a few.

The home-made Penny Whistle of a busker in Penzance
The home-made Penny Whistle of a busker in Penzance

But I realised today that although I have been listening to the stories people have been telling me, I maybe haven’t been really listening. I mean listening in the sense of actually drawing things from these stories that could teach me, or remind me of, things of importance. I’m not the sort of person to start getting all I-Ching or anything, but it struck me today that I could draw things from what people are telling me. Last night, for example, I couldn’t sleep until very late because my brain was exploding with thoughts about what I want to do with my life. I have some business ideas that seem very difficult and out of reach, and I haven’t really focused my brain on making them into something real. So I (like everyone else probably) am feeling trapped and frustrated creatively which is making me lethargic. I woke this morning, tired and confused and went out to do some food shopping for the family. As usual, I had my blogging kit with me and ended up talking to two people. The first was a lady who told me about how her grandmother brought up four children all on her own while running her own small business and ended up owning three houses through sheer determination and hard work. The second was a man who talked about the ways he had come to terms with life in a Czech prison.

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Now, if I WAS a New Age type or spiritual person, I could start thinking some sort of higher power is trying to tell me to get off my arse and grab life by its testicles. Or at least its handlebars. I’m not one of those, though – but what I do think is that if we listen – really listen – to things people are saying to us, our brains can focus in on bits and pieces that we need to hear.

So I’m off out tomorrow with my camera and notebook. I wonder what the people of Cornwall have to teach me next.

Bureaucrisis

Ever since I was at primary school I’ve always felt a little bit like this:

odd one outOr this:

Meerkats & kittenIt wasn’t anything dramatic or horrible. Nobody bullied me, I had friends and I don’t think anyone noticed. It’s just I didn’t feel the same as other people – not that I felt better or worse than them – just sort of separate. They seemed to understand what life was all about, while I found it all a massive unsolvable mystery. I spent a significant proportion of my time in a state of gentle disbelief; my tiny unformed brain muttering amazedness to itself: “What, so you mean I have to go to this school place EVERY DAY of the week until I’m 16?”, “So those girls actually WANT to all look exactly the same as each other?”, “Sex is WHAT?! That’s got to be a wind up.” “We have to run around a field in giant pants and nobody’s going to PROTEST?”, “Why do people go to work every day when it makes them look so unhappy?”, etc.

wise
This is me now. You can see the wisdom in my wizened cheeks and fathomless eyes.

Of course now I’m all ancient and withered I know that everyone else was probably thinking the exact same bewildered thoughts and feeling the exact same odd-one-outness as I was. But I didn’t know that then, and instead thought that either I or the rest of humanity was a bit off-kilter. Which one I thought it was depended on the mood I was in at the time. But gradually, I got used to the incongruities of the world and came to some sort of ‘agree to disagree’ deal with it.

But that semi-comfortable crust I allowed to form over my childhood incongruousness is beginning to crack. I may now be all grown up and whatever, but secretly, rumbling under the surface there’s a resurgence of that sense of not-quite-belonging-in-this-world. Those things that I used to ponder over – questions about why people have arranged the world like they have – haven’t actually been resolved at all. I’ve learned LOADS of detail about how it’s arranged and read loads of theories about why, but the frustration of it, the sheer brain thumping aggravating reality of it, is no less powerful than it was when I was 8.

It comes in waves, this feeling, and today I had a big one. A tsunami. You see, I have this lovely new job which I’m very excited about. One of the things this job involves is finding young people who need some support in life – ones who have disengaged with the education system and other things – working with them to find out what they want to do and then supporting them to actually do it. This feels to me like a job that’s WELL worth doing. I love working with young people and I think I’m good at it. The fairy godmother who scooped me out of my previous horrible job and gave me this one certainly believes I am, and I want to prove her right. And so far, so good. I have been meeting up with troubled young people, chatting for an hour or so, working out what we can do to help them, filling out a form to apply for the support they need and then getting on and working with them. The form is  bit long, so I apologise profusely for it and make sure we have a laugh as we do it.

Only today I discovered that I’ve been doing it wrong.

There is in fact more paperwork that needs to be done at this initial meeting stage. A lot more.

Bear in mind that these are young people that have been more or less failed by a clumsy, bureaucratic education system despite the best efforts of their teachers. They’re disengaged, they tend to distrust anything that represents authority and the only thing they really respond to is a friendly human that treats them as equals, seems to genuinely give a shit and has a laugh with them.

So imagine you are one of these young people. You have been offered a chance to meet up with someone who wants to help you find your way. You decide to drag yourself to a meeting despite all the crap that’s going on in your life, and the person you are hoping will be able to connect with you says that before they can even be sure they can offer you help, you’ll have to fill out some forms. These forms will then be sent off for approval, and if you don’t fit the criteria, you won’t get any help. Imagine how you feel when you find out that the paperwork you must do before you even know if it’ll come to anything is as follows:

1. A Referral form – 5 pages, including:

  •  Support worker’s details and the college’s details
  • Young person’s details
  • Reasons for referral and which programme they’re being referred to
  • What the student thinks of the proposed service
  • Which alternative solutions have been proposed
  • Additional support needed
  • What advice and guidance has been provided, how it’s been provided and how long we’ve been providing it for
  • Details about other agencies involved. If no other agencies are involved, have any been offered? If not, why not?
  • Summary of education & employment
  • Summary of social & behavioural development
  • Summary of family & environmental factors
  • Summary of personal health issues
  • A ‘soft outcomes assessment’ where the young person has to rate themselves on a scale for confidence, self-esteem, writing, reading, aspirations, and several others, and comment on each one.

 2. Programme agreement & initial assessment form – 9 pages, including:

  •  Young persons’s details (again)
  • Key worker details
  • Personal advisor details
  • Qualifications
  • Disabilities
  • General background
  • Ethnicity,
  • Achievements, qualifications, experience and action support that is required
  • Language, literacy numeracy, ESOL & key skills evidence and action support that’s required
  • Career preferences & suitability + action support needed
  • Interests & hobbies + action support needed
  • Learning difficulties or other support needs + action support required
  • A section for 3 things the young person is good at and 3 they are bad at + action support required to overcome these
  • Learning style assessment & action support required
  • An individual learning plan, including details of why this chosen programme is right for this learner, details of where the young person wishes to progress from this programme, details of the young person’s other key objectives, details of activities and support needed to enable them to meet their goals, details of the expected length of time required to complete these activities and achieve their goals, details of hours of attendance each week, which days they will be attending,
  • Two pages of all the levels, start dates, end dates and course codes of the qualifications they’ll be taking.
  • Details (AGAIN) of support being provided to ADD VALUE to the programme
  • Details of support activities to be provided by other organisations

 3. Initial assessment tests to be completed in literacy, numeracy & IT and results to be attached to above form along with the results of a learning styles test (also to be completed)

 4. A two-page Information, advice and guidance sheet, including:

  •  Young person’s details (AGAIN)
  • A section called: Where am I now? – young person’s experiences, qualifications, personal circumstances (AGAIN)
  • A section called “What do I want to do now and in the future?”
  • A goal setting section with activities. Students have to identify an overall goal, then make short term and long term targets and identify what activities are needed to achieve those targets. Who must do the activities and when each one is going to be done by.

 5. A time sheet of all the activities that are going to be done with the student and when, and all the activities that have been done so far.

 6. If the young person is under 16 there’s a whole “extended learning pack” to complete (I haven’t seen what delights that holds yet)

 7. Finally, an enrolment form that is double sided A3 in tiny print and requires all their personal info AGAIN. Including previous education, all their grades for everything, what course they’re applying for, benefits details, ethnicity, etc…. 

bureaucracy cartoonIf I was a disengaged young person – and I know this because I WAS one once – I would get up and walk out. It would fill me with fury. I would rant and fucking rave and go out and get pissed and decide that the ‘proper’ world was definitely NOT for me because it’s clearly mental. And of course THEY’D BE RIGHT. They’d be BLOODY RIGHT. It is INSANE.

And everyone in the meeting I attended about this KNEW it was insane, but none of us have any choice in the matter. If we want to be able to draw down the funding we need to help these young people, then this is what we have to do. The agency with the money require this paperwork before they will even consider funding a student. And there are two MORE batches of paperwork that have to be done in the TEN weeks that we may be working with a student who is accepted on the scheme.

It takes me two hours with a student to go through the first form. I DREAD to think how long it will take to do the rest. All of this is time that I should be spending working on what that young person (and the other young people on our scheme) need/s. I was employed in this role because I am an innovative teacher and hopefully an inspiring one. Students tend to like me and I really do like them and we work bloody well together. I am shit at paperwork and I hate it. It’s waste of my time and the time of our already disenfranchised young people.

No bloody wonder I felt at odds with the world when I was a kid.

I was bloody right.

ORIG-bureaucracy

 

 

In which I make a list and get sidetracked by homosexuality

Even after only a short time away, I miss my blog.

I miss reading and communicating with my fellow bloggers and I miss thinking about stuff long enough to write words about it. But I’ve gone back to work after three months of shell-shocked off-sickness and now my brain is full of other things again. It’s full of reasonably interesting other things – but other things nonetheless.

I do have some things I want to blog about, but I don’t seem to be able to pin myself down long enough to write about them coherently because there’s dog hair on the sofa, the washing machine needs emptying and I need to teach myself about schemas and apertures and interview skills by Friday.

So… I’ve decided to bullet point some of the things I’ve been thinking about/ doing in lieu of the series of blog posts they could have been/will be one day. Here they are:

1. I have a new job. It is not horrible. In fact, it’s VERY un-horrible. This week it involved visiting a place where I could shoot lasers at my students and get paid for it. And I don’t have to do any marking.

Here are two students fighting back.
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2. I have a car. An actual car. One that drives and fits things in. I’ve filled it up with wool, tennis balls, mini whiteboards, magazines, cardboard, sheepskin offcuts, playing cards, books and sandy blankets, and now it feels like HOME.

3. I’ve been thinking about masculinity. And dads. About how valuable masculinity is – and how misrepresented. I decided to write a post about it and/or start a Bring Back Men campaign. In preparation, I started to read around online, and found myself drowning in the furious dichotomous histrionics of the extremists of the ‘Feminist’ and ‘Masculinist’ movements. So much so that I had to have a bit of a lie down. A post will happen on this subject when I’ve recovered.

4. Pubes again. I went back to my old place of work and met the teacher who has inherited my job. He is teaching Equus, the play by Peter Shaffer in which the character Alan has a religious and sexual orgasm while riding naked on the back of a horse and yelling. My colleague observed that the students, on watching a 1970s film version of the play, were more horrified by Jenny Agutter having pubic hair than they were by Alan’s horsegasm.

5. I started basic photography classes and may have an f-stop diagram tatooed on my arm because I can’t seem to retain the information. I think it’s because it involves fractions.

6. I sat on a rock at Poly Joke beach and a seal popped up almost at arm’s length. It kept submerging and then reappearing even closer so it could get a better look. I didn’t know seals were so nosy, but I’m glad.Image

7. I started reading a book called Androphilia, written by a gay man who argues that the stereotypical gay identity is…

“… a subculture, a slur, a set of gestures, a slang, a look, a posture, a parade, a rainbow flag, a film genre, a taste in music, a hairstyle, a marketing demographic, a bumper sticker, a political agenda and philosophical viewpoint. Gay is a pre-packaged superficial persona. Gay is a sexual identity that has almost nothing to do with sexuality…”

He goes on to say that his book is…

“for those men who never really bought into what the gay community was selling. It is a challenge to leave the gay world completely behind and to rejoin the world of men, unapologetically, as androphiles, but more importantly, as men.”

This is a subject I find really interesting because I’ve always wondered why people who are attracted to members of the same sex should want their partner to imitate the opposite sex. Why should lesbians be ‘butch’ and gay men ‘effeminate’?

I remember reading Foucault’s The History of Sexuality where he argued that homosexual desire has always been a natural part of the human spectrum of sexuality and that it was the Victorians who decided to categorise it as entirely separate from ‘normal’ heterosexuality.

He said that although ‘sodomy’ was seen as abhorrent in the Bible – so Christians disapproved of it – sodomy was a sexual act, not a persona or a way of life. The Victorians, he said, labelled individuals who regularly performed homosexual acts as ‘inverts’ – men whose gender/sex was kind of upside down. Homosexuals were seen as men with too much woman in their makeup.

I don’t know how true Foucault’s version of the history of homosexuality is, but it has always made me wonder why – if the Victorians thought homosexuality was all about men who were too female and needed curing – why did the revolutionary gay movement adopt a style in which gay men tend to perform a type of femaleness? Surely that is pandering to Victorian ideas of sexuality? Surely if you fancy men, then it’s their ‘masculine’ traits that are attractive? If you’re a lesbian, why would you fancy ‘masculine’ females?

I expect I’ll get verbally kicked in the head for this post by those who will argue that ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are social constructs (and I have sympathy with that idea in the main but do acknowledge also that there are some rather pleasing biological differences between males and females), but never mind. It’s just something I’ve been thinking about. And I think the book Androphilia gets a bit troubling later – I think he goes on to blame Feminism for gay culture. *sigh*.

8. Pubes AGAIN. My friend H said she ended up talking about pubes in one of her lessons after observing that there’s only a one day shag window available after you’ve had your pubes waxed off. A group of young female students in her class said there was no way they were buying into all that shit about having to yank all the hairs out of their pubic region. H was delighted.

9. I saw these cats.

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Thank you, panic attack.

My panic attack was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.

Humans have this capacity to carry on in horrible situations for unlimited quantities of time unless something forces them to stop. I was unhappy in my job, I was working 70 hours a week, I was exhausted, I was disillusioned and seriously questioning whether the things I was killing myself to do were of any use to anyone.

This would have continued indefinitely if my body hadn’t said enough is enough. My breathing went wrong, I was sent to hospital, I was told that this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the physical damage long-term stress and overwork can do, that I needed a long rest and that I probably need to change my life in some way.

My first month off sick was spent sleeping, crying and raging about the fact that I’d spent nearly 15 years working to get out of the travelling scene and into the ‘real’ world and overcoming all sorts of mental barriers to become the professional teacher that I am now; only to find out that I am too much of a wimp to cope with the demands of the job. I had so much to offer but the education machine had smushed me into a little weeping pulp.

In my second month off sick, in between the crying and sleeping, the world-outside-work began to edge its way back in to my life. It was a complete revelation. I found I could properly listen when spouse spoke for the first time in years – there was real space in my head for his problems and concerns. I was able to cook him meals occasionally because I was no longer home much later than him in the evenings. I could watch films with son 2 because I wasn’t marking or lesson planning. I could see my parents because I didn’t have to spend all Sunday working. I could go out in the evenings. I began to paint and draw again for the first time in years. I was home when the shops were open so I could buy a pint of milk or a loaf of bread. I could stay up late editing my photographs. I could read whole books which were not work related. I had time to write, and this blog took off. I started to make things again. If someone dropped in unexpectedly for a visit I no longer panicked. I could spend a whole afternoon drinking tea and chatting without that low-level depressing knowledge that I’d now have to stay up extra late to catch up on the work I should have been doing. And most of all, I had time to think about what I want from life. And to realise that living like I had been was no way to live.

A friend of mine once explained how it was she had remained in a horrifically abusive relationship with a mentally ill man for so long before escaping. What sticks in my mind is how she had started seeing the world from the point of view of her abuser. She had begun to share his delusions and feel the same paranoia as he did, losing confidence in her own opinions, and constantly doubting her own judgement. She ended up believing the same things he did, and sharing his warped value system, while at the same time knowing it was all insane. This, I realised, is how I had been working in education (minus the cruelty). The more the management earnestly promoted new impossible and/or contradictory and/or alien ways of doing things, the more I found myself in a state of rampant cognitive dissonance – questioning the system, my own responses to the system and wondering if it was me or it that was insane. I was trying very hard to make it work because I thought I loved it, but in the end I realised it didn’t love me, and it took a hospital visit to make me realise it was over.

In this third month of my being-off-sick I’ve started recovering. I feel as though the clockwork of my brain has been oiled and rewound. I am inspired again. All the clutter and worry of A Level teaching has finally cleared out and space has been made for new ideas. I have a new job for January thanks to a human/fairy godmother (much less money and security, but real purpose again and opportunities for creativity) and I have two new ideas for exciting things to do with my life on top of that.

One of my ideas involves this:
garden square And another idea involves these:

Just looking at these images and thinking about what they represent fills me with the kind of inspiration and gut wrenching happiness I haven’t felt in a very long time. So thank you panic attack. Thank you very, very much for awakening my brain.

Is this going to be in the exam?

I wonder how many texts in the whole history of the world have begun with the phrase, “My grandmother used to say…” Probably millions. It’s probably a phrase that should be avoided at ALL costs. They probably run creative writing courses specifically to train people never to use, “my grandmother used to say” in their Great Works.

My grandmother used to say that I should be a teacher. She thought so from the time when my lifeyears could still be counted in single numbers, and she continued to think so right through my delinquency and out the other side. Or if not a teacher, she thought I should at the very least be be a journalist. One of the two.

She was quite wise, my grandmother. She did say less sage things sometimes, such as when she compared the back of my neck to a fruit and regularly observed that the best way to keep a house tidy is to take something upstairs with you every time you ascend. Small brother was troubled by the potential outcome of this – that fairly soon everything you own would be inconveniently upstairs. But still, she was mainly a fount of wisdom, just as grandmothers are supposed to be.

My grandmother and mother in the 1960s

So when I finished being a delinquent, then stopped waiting for my bewildered spouse to suddenly become a city financier and finally realised that if I wanted to have a ‘normal’ life (one with a toilet, a letter box and furniture), I would have to do something about it myself, it was to teaching I turned. In fact, I awoke one morning with an evangelical urge to save teenagers from the fate I had experienced – a decade of addled pointlessness – and immediately phoned a local college to find out how someone with a YTS in Photography and a couple of English ‘O’ Levels could qualify herself to inspire the young and lead them onto a path of righteousness. I was a Born Again Educator.

Four years later I had a First Class Honours degree and shortly after that I had a teaching qualification and a job in a college. Ok, that makes it all sound ridiculously easy, which it wasn’t, but I’m not admitting to you that I once got so knackered churning out essays that I forgot to remove my knickers in the loo. No. That’s far too personal. And anyway, that’s not my point. My point is that I became a teacher. In fact, I thought I’d landed the dream job teaching ‘A’ Levels in the FE sector. I mean, all my students were at least reasonably equipped with active braincells (surely?); I wouldn’t have to shout at kids to straighten their ties; mostly students were attending voluntarily so would be partially well-behaved (surely?) and I would get to motivate their young hearts and tempt them with the iceberg tips of knowledge that had blown me away at university. I was an eduslut. An evangelecturer. You get the picture.

For me it was all about giving young people a place to think, and to recognise that their ideas – no matter how ‘radical’ or seemingly socially unacceptable – actually have an important place in the history of thought. I wanted to show them that education is not about shutting up and believing what they are ‘taught’, but about grasping the skills to learn for themselves whatever it is that interests them.  I wanted to engage them in the history of ideas and give them chances to look at things from different perspectives, pursue their own trains of thought and to give them all the links and tools to do so. Nothing would be out of bounds as a topic for consideration. And I mean nothing.

I know I was naive, but I truly and unequivocally believed education was about enlightenment. I haven’t got a clue what gave me that idea, but that’s what I thought. My, how I laugh now when I think of my idiocy.

The first time a student ever said to me, “is this going to be in the exam?”, I took the question at face value and didn’t quite grasp the implications of it. But after it had happened more times than I could count, it dawned on me that, for the bulk of these students, none of this stuff mattered unless it would help them achieve the grade they wanted in the final assessments. The things we were ‘teaching’ seemed to them to be in a whole separate category from the lives they led outside college. The whole point of being in the classroom for them was to find out how to get grades in a process absolutely removed from anything they cared about in the real world. The kind of intellectual curiosity teachers dream of inspiring in their students was/is a very rare commodity indeed. In every class of say 24 students there are usually one or two (if any) who are genuinely interested. Many can raise some interest for the duration of the lesson and many will work very hard to learn material, but only a very few are absolutely engaged and able to bring their own ideas, reading, thoughts and experiences to the table.

I am not blaming the students for this state of affairs – not at all. Those very students who sit in classes with facial expressions resembling potatoes will often spring to life when discussing mechanics or music or flying or whatever it is they like doing outside formal education. Something has happened to them, and it’s not necessarily terminal brain damage. Our system seems to have created a disconnect between ‘education’ and genuine learning for the love of it. Somewhere along the line – as home educators have been saying for years – our young people lose the curiosity they are born with and become processed grade-churning machines, and it’s we who have made them that way.

The trouble is that, no matter how strongly we believe this, and how much we teachers want to reverse this process, the entire education system is now dependent on grades. Schools and colleges that don’t get the grades lose students and funding and can no longer continue. This leads to a vast underground of troubled teachers finding ways to get students through qualifications that they’re not really equipped for because they’ve been processed-not-educated through their formative years – in other words, we have to continue to process-not-educate.

As an A Level teacher I constantly marvel at students who come to me with C (and above) grades at GCSE and who cannot string sentences together and have never read an entire book. Speaking to teachers from the primary and secondary sector I realise that the same thing happens all the way through schools. A primary teacher told me that it starts the minute targets are set and SATS are taken. Teachers are punished if they don’t get students to meet targets, so they teach to test. Students move on to the next stage without the required knowledge and skills and so it goes on – all the way up – teaching to test and excessive guidance with coursework. Teachers have no choice. I see it all the time, and those that don’t do it are labelled bad teachers and undergo capability enquiries. Their livelihoods, sense of self-worth and careers are in jeopardy if they don’t comply.

Here’s a version of a conversation that took place between a friend of mine (L) and her manager (M):

M: This student’s only got a D in her coursework.

L: Yes.

M: What are you going to do about it?

L: Give her a D.

M: But there must be something you can do.

L: I have. I’ve done one-to-one sessions with her to help her, and she got a D.

M: Couldn’t you get her a C?

L:  She doesn’t care about the grade – she’s only doing this course because she wants to learn.

M: But you could do a couple more sessions with her.

L: I’ve done nine already. She is happy with a D. Do you want me to write it for her?

M: …

When my friend told me about this conversation I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It crystalised for me everything about where we have gone wrong as a system. L had a rare student who actually just wanted to learn for learning’s sake, and she was STILL being pressured into achieving grades. WHO was that grade FOR?

This made me finally realise I don’t believe in it all any more. So even though my grandmother was right – I probably was born to be a teacher – and there’s nothing I enjoy more than being in the classroom – it’s probably time to try journalism. Or something.

All offers of gainful employment welcomed.

.

Suck: The System

Son 2 phoned today. The conversation went something like this:

“I’m just informing you that I resigned from university this morning.”

“Ah. I see. How did you do it?”

“It’s easy; you just go online, click ‘I don’t want to be at uni any more’, and they go, ‘OK’.”

“Ah. Right…  Why did you decide to do that?”

“I’ve had enough of the education system. It’s sucking out my soul.”

Image source: http://slambradley.deviantart.com/art/Soul-Sucker-187795153

A proper parent would probably have tried to do some reasoning with him. Or wheedling. Or bribery of some kind. A proper parent would have at the very least suggested sleeping on it, or going to discuss it with a friendly lecturer; but I just said a singularly ineffectual,

“Oh. OK.”

The problem is, you see… the thing that stopped me from doing all the things a proper parent should have done is that I AGREE WITH HIM. The education system probably IS sucking out his soul. I’m a teacher and the education system is sucking out my soul as well. It’s also sucking out the soul of almost every other teacher I know.

I didn’t tell him that a couple of weeks ago I had my first ever anxiety attack and am signed off sick from the job that once made me spark like a high voltage cable. I didn’t mention to him that everything I ever wanted to do for young people is being slowly and surely booted into oblivion by the grades obsessed, bureaucratic slurry of suits who run our college. I didn’t mention that my college – a place that’s entire purpose should be to inspire the next generation to greatness – is now nothing more than a grades-at-all-costs human-crunching machine.

A few years ago I was a Grade 1 Outstanding teacher; I spent all my time reading and thinking and collaborating with friends and colleagues on ideas for excellent lessons. I loved the students and I still do. But the system has reached a point where I don’t have the strength to work in it any more; the whole thing creates massive cognitive dissonance in my brain. I no longer believe in it, and need to find a way out.

So who am I to tell my son that he can’t walk out of a system that is so screwed? Like him, as soon as I can find a way, I will go online and click ‘I don’t want to be a teacher any more’, and they will say, ‘OK’ and that will be that. There is no shortage of newly qualified and enthusiastic teachers ready and willing to take my place in the queue for grinding disillusionment.

 

Violent crime clipart

I eavesdropped on a Facebook conversation between two of my friends today while procrastinating. They were discussing where they are at with their planning (they’re teachers). One was saying she’s finished and just browsing for clip-art for her resources. The other, after admonishing her for using clip-art at all, pointed out that you can’t get clip-art for her topic – violent crime.

BAM. A much more exciting way to procrastinate! Me to the rescue!

1. Gang violence.

2. Stabbing

3. Petrol bombing

4. Impossible kneecapping.

A response

I had a lovely couple of emails in response to this post:

http://throbbingsofnoontide.wordpress.com/2012/07/07/rain-and-dining-tables-45-2/

The sender, a teacher and friend who has just moved out of Cornwall, said he is happy for me to post them here, so I have.

One of the things I’m most looking forward to, especially in weather like this, is of moving into a house. Of being able to make a cup of tea or go to the toilet or even move from one ‘room’ to another without having to put on wellies and walk for 10 metres outside.

Aside from a brief spell at university I’ve lived caravans on my farm since I was 5. Through winters so cold that one year the mirror in my room cracked, rainy seasons where the caravans leak and you find the new leaks caused by the previous winds and cold spells, high winds where the roof cladding and walls stripped off, creaking and groaning as if they’re in pain. Falling through floors weakened by decades of rain, stress and use; thin windows that don’t keep the cold out or warmth in when they want you to, but turn the caravans into an oven when you want cool; power cuts caused by water leaking into circuits; falling over in rain soaked or frozen walks to get a warm drink (negating the point of the drink in the first place because of the journey outside in the cold or wet!); having no water because our spring line has frozen; all the years of having to go outside and have a shit when I was younger before we plumbed in an inside toilet.

People come here and see the farm and tell me that “It’s quiet and there is nobody else for miles and how beautiful the lake and all the green space is” and bloody hell they’re right, and I’ll miss that, but when they tell me that
“they’d easily manage in the caravans if they could live here” (especially if it’s summer when it does look picturesque here), I look at them and I know they’re full of bullshit, they wouldn’t cope at the first sign of rain or a light frost, they don’t know what ‘cold’ truly is, from their centrally heated homes with big thick insulated roofs.

And now I’m going to become one of them, and I’m going to truly relish something as simple as going to the toilet or getting a cup of tea without having to prepare for the elements. Even being inside when it’s raining ridiculously. Your blog post pretty much captures how I feel, especially when I used to visit my friends houses when I was younger. I don’t think I’ve met anyone else who can really understand this.

***

After this week it’s amazing how easily I’ve got used to this. Each morning when I wake up I walk from bedroom to bathroom to kitchen to lounge just because I can – without having to put on trousers, a jumper or boots! I think the frequent and quite heavy rain we’ve had this week has played a part too. Several times this week I have caught myself standing in the lounge looking out the patio door at heavy rain, walking to the kitchen and making a cup of tea and then going back to stand and stare out the window; once I return to the window tea in hand, I find myself subconsciously smiling as I stare out the window.

It’s the same smile I used to give whenever I’d walk the twenty metres down the bank from my room to my kitchen to make a cup o’ tea, and then back again; serendipitously timing both journeys with breaks in the rainfall – that smile that somehow I’ve beaten the rain!

And whilst I didn’t sit and watch the washing machine first time like you did when you first moved into a house, I did appreciate being able to wash clothes again without either taking them to a friend’s house, or visiting a launderette.
But my cat did sit and watch the first cycle – I think he was intrigued by the noise.

Also, I love reading your blog, don’t stop, do a creative writing course and find a way to make it support your life so you can get out of teaching, (or carry on teaching on your own terms). I love reading it because I can hear your voice in my head and it makes it even better to read!

Thanks Brynn, we’re going to miss you.

Life is a five act play

I’m at the beginning of Act 4, I realised this morning on the train. That’s what’s brought on all this memory purging I’ve been doing: collating (and crooning over) photos of the sons when they were small and writing down all the stuff I need to leave behind now.

I’ve been teaching Othello for a few years, and always get the students to summarise the structure of the play – how the plot develops through the 5 acts.

Some of my students in their Emilia, Desdemona and Iago masks.Image

Othello’s trajectory in some ways fits with mine. And probably yours too. Here’s how:

Act 1: Shakespeare sets up the conflicts Othello’s going to encounter and the backdrop in which it’s all going to take place. For me, Act 1 is childhood and (if you’re a Sociologist) socialisation.

Act 2: Othello moves from the comfortable (with hints of conflict) life he has in Venice through a turbulent journey to a less civilised and more chaotic world in Cyprus. This act is what leads up to the pivotal third act where he undergoes his biggest transformation. My Act 2 is the bit where I leave home and begin a life of squatting and ‘travelling’, and it’s this that sets the foundations of the journey I have to make in my third act.

Act 3: This is the part of Othello’s story where he falls prey to his own vulnerabilities and a malign influence and goes from being desperately in love with Desdemona at the beginning to plotting to kill her by the end. It’s the biggest shift in the play, just as it is in mine. My third act begins when son 1 is conceived on a traveller’s site, follows my transformation from down-and-out to teacher and ends with my boys leaving home.

Act 4: For Othello, this is where we begin to see how he deals with the effects of Act 3 – how he responds to his changes. Othello has a fit and plots murders, but my Act 4? I don’t know yet. This is where I negotiate everything I have learned from my transformative Act 3. It’s down to the choices I make right now.

Act 5: We see the consequences of Othello’s decisions in Act 4. All, for him, ends in tragedy. It’s a good job I realised this plot structure in time to make sure I make better choices than he does.

Does this structure work in your life? I’d be dead interested to find out.